Cognitive Approaches

Do we think the way we speak?

Which comes first, language or thought? It's like question of chicken or egg. Do we learn to think before we speak, or does language shape our thoughts? Many linguists and psychologists dwell upon this question and support their ideas with theories, examples and meditations. All of the modern theorists can be sharply divided in two groups, the first claiming that language shapes our mind, the second argueing that "mind comes first".

Group one: Language shapes our mind
Theorists like Noam Chomsky, Richard Montague, Lydia White support the idea of Universal Grammar and state that the human brain contains a limited set of rules for organizing language.

In turn, there is an assumption that all languages have a common structural basis and a set of generalizations called linguistic universals. According to Chomsky, the presence of Universal Grammar in the brains of children allows them to deduce the structure of their native languages from "mere exposure". (Chomsky, N.1975). Nativists claim that languages resemble each other in structural features that are not necessary properties of a language. These universal structural properties must be explained on the basis of innate knowledge. Supporting this theory, linguists stick to the idea that if language is innately given, it comes first and shapes our mind.

Group two: Mind comes first
Elizabeth Bates, Catherine Snow, Michael Tomasello and many others have hypothesized that language learning results only from general cognitive abilities and the interaction between learners and their surrounding communities.

“The number of language universals is not that impressive, and not large enough to justify the postulation of an innate language faculty”. (Sampson, G. 2005). Virtually all linguists … involved in the detailed analysis of individual languages cross-linguistically … agree that there are very few … specific grammatical categories and constructions … present in all languages” (Michael Tomasello 2003). For example, according to Daniel Everett (a missionary and linguist) the Piraha language does not have recursion in its grammatical structure, which Chomsky considered to be a universal feature in all human languages. In some other languages there exist not only grammatical but also lexical gaps. As for instance: in Rumanian there is a special word for the notion”elder sister”- “lelea”; in German or in English the same notion will be expressed with the help of two separate lexemes.

As we can see in the above mentioned citations, linguists from both groups rest upon the existence of universals in language and thought. The term “linguistic universal” can be understood in two distinct ways:

  • the term refers to patterns of similarity that are attested in typological studies
  • the term “universal” can be used to refer to underlying principles of linguistic organization and structure that are represented in the human mind” (compare Chomsky)

The branch of linguistics that is concerned with linguistic typology (classification of languages according to their structural features), reveals the relative rarity of absolute universals that hold across all the languages. Universals in their turn can be divided into unrestricted and implicational universals. The former state, that all languages show a particular pattern with respect to some structural feature.

  • Ex. All spoken languages have nouns/verbs/oral vowels, etc.

The latter states the restrictions on the logically possible patterns usually in the format:

  • “If language X has property Y, then it will also have property Z”.

  • “If a language X has voiced stops, then it will also have voiceless stops”.

One can come to the conclusion that universals do exist in natural languages. They are rather universals of communication, cognition and human psychology and not universals of form or particular kinds of grammatical categories. Michael Tomasello writes: “Because all languages are used by human beings with similar social lives, all people have the need to solve in their languages certain kinds of communicative tasks.” (Tomasello, M. 2003).

In contrast to formal linguists, cognitive linguists argue that there are universal tendencies. They outline a number of constraints on human conceptualization that try to explain the existence of linguistic universals. These constraints include:

  1. The nature of human embodiment
  2. Gestalt principles
  3. Categorization

People who speak different languages nevertheless experience universal tendencies such as perceiving one aspect of a situation as the figure or fore-ground and the other as the ground or back-ground.

Humans have always been interested in the nature of the relationship between though and language. Within modern linguists this idea is most frequently associated with Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It can be roughly presented as follows:

Linguistic determinism: language determines non-linguistic thought

Linguistic relativism: speakers of different languages will therefore think differently

There is empirical evidence against the hypothesis that language determines non-linguistic thought. The Dani, a tribe from New Guinea, only have two primary colours. Nevertheless they are able to categorize and remember a complex set of distinct focal colours. This fact does not exclude the possibility that language can influence or shape thought in any way. Going back to the above mentioned Piraha people, they do not have past and future in their language. That means they live in present and do not discuss past events or bother themselves with possible troubles, which can occur in future. So, the grammatical structure of the language influences the perception of the world in this case.

Linguistic Relativity

Language in use